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Temporary Shelter

August 28, 2008

I am writing from Puglia, the heel of the boot, at an immense campground called Riva di Ugento where we have rented a mobile home for a week.  I spend my days reading and writing and occasionally walking through the woods to join the family on the sandiest, whitest beach with the clearest turquoise water I’ve ever seen.

There is certainly a rationale for prefabricated housing which on one level can be paralleled to prefabricated automobiles as conceived by Henry Ford. It seems bizarre that we even think of custom building single family homes on a site instead of buying the latest model from a dealer. It’s true that most of the components are modular, factory-built: Anderson windows, Rex kitchens, roofing systems, solar panels, etc. But it’s still quite rare that a home is designed as a product as is an ipod or an automobile.

The difference lies in the role of “place” in the home. While an ipod has little interface with the world around it and, in fact, helps separate one from that world, the home acts as a filter which must respond differently to different climates, orientations, views, acoustic conditions, etc. And while the ipod, or the car, are made to move around, the home in the end remains fixed to a site.  True, a home can be manufactured and brought to a site (and this is becoming more common) but there it remains to age and evolve, very differently from the ipod that is destined to be replaced within a year or so by the newest model.

The urban slant of this blog, encouraging density as a precondition for sustainable living, adds another twist to the discussion of manufactured housing. While one might conceive of a futuristic city in which skeletal frames and infrastructure receive pre-fab units–ideas expressed by Le Corbusier, Archigram and others–there may be no way to insert a prefabricated home within an existing historical city center.  The site in the city is not a plot of land with a buffer zone around it but rather a unique piece of 3-D real estate. There are very few sites for new construction in the city without demolition of historical structures (an option to be evaluated carefully because of the material, cultural and energy costs).  Even if one considers, as I do, the urban apartment as a “site for new construction” within which walls may come down and go up, spatial organization can change, and new architecture can emerge, the insertion of a manufactured home into such a complex existing site requires it to be flexible, not rigid.

Actually, such a solution for the urban pre-fab home does exist and it’s called IKEA.  No longer do we even consider built-in furniture, custom-designed kitchens, tailored curtains or the likes when everything is available so cheaply and so rationally from IKEA.  Take a piece of raw urban property–an apartment gutted to its masonry core–and spend a few hours or days with the IKEA catalog or website and a home emerges with very little on-site work to be done.  It can be order from the catalog to a large degree and delivered by courier, assembled on site in a simple, rational and generally ecological manner (packaging is designed to minimize environmental impact). There is enough choice to satisfy our need for personalization and the site’s need for adaptation.

As much as people whine about the pervasiveness of IKEA, it’s hard to opt for the alternatives when they are far more expensive, less environmentally sound, harder to purchase and assemble, or all of the above. What’s lacking, though, is a competitive market in which other IKEAs vie for our money. It’s as if we were back in the age when only Ford mass produced cars but a number of smaller manufacturers made cars by hand; they might have had more appeal but it would be hard to resist the cost-benefit analysis that drew one to Ford. Soon GM and others emerged to compete, just as other makers of MP3 players compete with the ipod and other PDAs competed with the Palm Pilot.

The PreFab Urban House needs work to be able to provide well-designed components that can adapt to the most complex of sites. Meanwhile, if the site allows for flexibility, the new mobile homes, based on our Puglia experience, are not so bad.

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